Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan Geumjassi)

The cinema of the gifted Chan-wook Park has divided critics into two camps, those who see it as art of the most personal kind and those who dismiss it as violent Asian trash, exploitation fare driven by excess.

“Lady Vengeance” belongs to his “Vengeance Trilogy,” a series of films that began with 2002's “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and continued with 2003's Cannes Jury Prize-winner Oldboy.” This concluding chapter will undoubtedly generate the similar debate and polarize critics and moviegoers.

The new film, which is a moral fable than the previous ones, is more accomplished and enjoyable, and less violent than “Oldboy,” which I didn't care much about. “Lady Vengeance” boasts a terrific central performance, stunning cinematography, shocking yet poetic imagery, memorable score, and quite an engaging story.

Unlike the first two films in his cycle, which focus on the politics of vengeance and cruelty (the harrowingly forceful “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”), and noirish excesses (the squid-easting scene in “Oldboy”), Park's elegant new melodrama employs retribution as a form of religious rebirth and atonement.

After 13 years in prison for the kidnapping and murder of a little boy, angelic Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) is released on her rehabilitated scruples. However, we quickly realize that her good-girl image is a carefully calculated act to exact retribution upon the man responsible for her imprisonment, Mr. Baek (“Oldboy” lead Choi Min-sik).

Less graphic than the previous pictures but nonetheless disquieting, Lady Vengeance (as it's retitled for its 2006 theatrical release) raises questions about vigilante justice.
Yeong-ae Lee, who was in Park's first film, “Joint Security Area,” plays the titular role as a beautiful woman who's been wrongly imprisoned. While in prison, she spent her time planning revenge against Mr. Baek. Free to exact her vengeance, she enlists the aid of her daughter, Jenny (who was taken from her custody and adopted by a family in Australia), a young admirer, and the now retired detective from her case that never doubted her innocence.

Geum Ja is called unb jail “The Angel” and “The Witch,” and she's obviously both. On the one hand compassionate and caring for those in need, and on the other, harsh and brutal for those who deserve punishment. Things never go as planned and Geum Ja's scheme for revenge winds up becoming much larger than originally meant to be.

Conistently Slick and mesmerizing, “Lady Vengeance” is a grimly sardonic study of cold-blooded brutality. The movie boasts an intricate flashback structure and ingenious use of light, color, and shade. There's also humor and mordant wit, particularly during the chapters that chronicle the crimes of Lees accomplices.

Like the previous films, “Lady Vengeance” is visually stunning, with numerous memorable images: wallpaper that flows and swirls; metal sculptures of women who each hold a man's severed head; a bathroom lined with brick and stone filling up with smoke; street lights that gradually blink out, turning a snowy street into dark alley; ordinary people holding different weaponry while wearing plastic raincoats.

Like the imagery, the score, filled with strings, pianos, and harpsichord, is haunting, too.

The “Vengeance Trilogy” is not linked together by narrative coherence or plot, but by a common theme, revenge and its tragic consequences. While “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” is more traditional in story and characters, “Oldboy” fels more like an over-the-top violent melodrama. In contrast to bothm “Lady Vengeance” is more ambitious in intent, with Park working some Biblical motifs.

The trilogy is a remarkable accomplishment, and all three movies are now available on DVD.